Serb 'em Up!

Thursday, April 19, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

We aren't here to talk about Serena Williams today, but let's talk for a moment about Serena Williams. Isn't it somewhat strange to know that she is in Ukraine, preparing for the weekend's World Group II Fed Cup matches, and we haven't had a peep (or, more in keeping with the gestalt, a tweet) out of her—or about her? 

All we've had lately, as far as I know, is this image, posted on Twitter by Fed Cup personnel . You have to hand it to Fed (and Davis) Cup. It still takes the game and its best players off the beaten path, but it gets harder and harder to keep the cameras and computers from finding them. Team USA is presently at the edge of the radar. The customary pre-draw press conference? There's no available transcript; just an email passing on quotes from the U.S. squad. You get the feeling it was sent via carrier pigeon. 

On Fed Cup, the canned quote from Serena isn't exactly stop the presses stuff: “I’m here to play with my team. I ran into some health problems the last few years and that is why I was not able to play Fed Cup the last few times.”

A part of me hopes that the ladies of Team USA enjoy the relative anonymity and low-key surroundings in Kharkiv. Let them bond, laugh, practice, dine, and let their hair down with no fear of snooping reporters or broadcasters watching and waiting for any word or deed that might cause a sensation. Meanwhile, we'll move on to take a look at the World Group semis:

Serbia at Russia (details here; Russia leads series, 3-0): Believe it or not, the Serbs had never won a World Group tie until they mastered Belgium (sans Kim Clijsters) earlier this year. Granted, the nation has been in the Fed Cup game only since 1995, and has played under three different geopolitical configurations: Yugoslavia (1995-2003), Serbia and Montenegro (2004-2006), and then as, simply, Serbia.

Still, with either Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic active since 2001 (Jankovic played her first tie that year, at the age of 16), that amounts to perhaps the most disappointing history of any team in Fed Cup. Heck, even Justine Henin and Clijsters set aside their difference long enough to win the Fed Cup once—coincidentally its the same year that Jankovic made her debut for Yugoslavia.

This poor record is irksome, especially for Serbs, when you compare the Serbian women with their Davis Cup counterparts, who won the championship in 2010 with considerably less "on paper" talent than the women represent. Jankovic and Ivanovic have both been ranked No. 1 and played Grand Slam finals. They're both in the prime of life and career. There's no reason why they couldn't have swept this competition three, maybe four times. 

If the Serbs hope to break through this year, they'll have to learn to win as favorites; Ivanovic and Jankovic are both inside the Top 20, none of the three Russian singles candidates are. In fact, the hosts are missing their best player, world No. 2 Maria Sharapova. It may help the Serbs that the tie is in Moscow, which takes away some of the pressure Ivanovic and Jankovic must feel at home.

Russia's captain, Shamil Tarpischev, is notorious for his outside-the-box thinking and willingness to buck the conventional wisdom when it comes to choosing his singles players. But there's little he can do that would truly surprise, short of nominating Elena Vesnina (WTA No. 78) to play singles in place of one of his three top stars: Maria Kirilenko (No. 21), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (No. 22) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (No. 27).  

Given that Pavlyuchenkova, who is 3-0 against Jankovic but 0-3 against Ivanovic, is mired in an awful slump (she has just three wins on the year; we're talking matches, not tournaments), going with Fed Cup stalwart Kuznetsova as the second singles player behind Kirilenko would hardly qualify as an unexpected decision. 

Jankovic is 10-9 against the three Russian singles options, strongest against Kirilenko (5-1). But Ivanovic is the real nemesis for the Russians: She's 13-4 against them all, and 4-2 against Kirilenko. Given that Kuznetsova hasn't won two consecutive matches since Doha, it's hard to imagine her emerging as a surprise heroine despite that admirable 18-7 record in singles.

The real Fed Cup stalwart in this group is Jankovic. She's played 28 ties, and amassed a 32-12 record (25-7 in singles). Okay, so a lot of those W's were in sub-World Group play, against inferior competition. She still answered the call. Combine that dedication with the present form of Ivanovic, who is playing better than anyone else in this tie, and the comfort of all the players on the surface, and it looks like the Russians have their work cut out. But never underestimate the Serbs' ability to disappoint.

Italy at Czech Repubic (details here, Italy leads series 4-3): This is an intriguing hard court match-up between a rapidly aging Italian squad whose best days as a Fed Cup overachiever may be over, and a spirited young team (and defending champ) that features a pair of lefthanders, Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova.

The mainstay of the Czech squad is Kvitova, a 22-year-old star who's had a lot of trouble getting her game off the ground following a breakout year during which she won Wimbledon and came within a hair's breadth of finishing as the world No. 1.

Francesca Schiavone, the WTA No. 12, remains the heart and soul of the Italian squad. Flavia Pennetta, her teammate on three championships teams since 2006, has yielded her place as the second-ranked Italian to Roberta Vinci, who's five rungs higher on the rankings ladder at No. 19. Will captain Corrado Barazzutti bypass Vinci, hoping that Pennetta and Schiavone—at 30 years of age, Pennetta is about 18 months younger than Schiavone—can call up their reserves and tap into sentiment to make one more run at a championship?

Pennetta's aggregate record against Kvitova and lefty Lucie Safarova, the Czech No. 2, is 4-5. But three of those wins were over the Kvitova, and the Italian veteran won the last time she played Safarova, on a hard court in Doha. By contrast, Vinci is 2-1 against the Czechs—both wins over Safarova. Barazzutti has a very tough decision to make. 

That decision may be all for naught anyway, because while Kvitova has struggled in tournament play this year, she won two very tough singles matches against a game German squad in the Fed Cup quarterfinals—proving once again that she's one of those players who comes up with her best when she's playing under her flag. Despite her youth, Kvitova is already an impressive 13-4 in Fed Cup singles. Plus, the tie will be on an indoor hard court, a surface on which her big southpaw serve and power game are deadly.

The only hope for the Italians is to get to Safarova, whose Fed Cup singles record is 5-9 and hope that, assuming two singles wins for Kvitova, their prowess in doubles can somehow provide the winning margin. It would be a heroic effort, but I don't see it happening.

Prediction: Serbia to meet Czech Republic for the championship.

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